are we having fun? mental health and fashion education
We present an exclusive extract from a special supplement made by 1 Granary looking into the health of recent graduates, to understand what affects their mental and physical wellbeing.
Surviving art school isn't the end, it's just the beginning, and tackling issues related to your actual mental and physical well-being in a sustainable way is key in the long run, as it seems to be something that is only reflected upon in retrospect. Having to confront the heat of meeting a deadline often comes with the negligence of one's health. Only when speaking with designers a few years after graduating do many of them speak regretfully about being disorganised, not working in a more efficient way to avoid all-nighters and physically pushing yourself to the limit -- matters that should not in fact be romanticised. It is vital for those at the start, middle and end of their fashion education to realise that the body is so fundamental, and taking care of it - both physically and mentally -- will only improve the creative process. These small but important things need to be encouraged from the very beginning.
Thinking about the importance of these issues, 1 Granary spoke with more than a hundred fashion design students and graduates of Central Saint Martins, the Royal College of Art, Parsons and the Antwerp Fashion Department for this special feature to highlight their hardships as the first step into recognising what direction we should all take to create change, and get an idea of how they deal with the obstacles that come their way during education. Here we presented an edited excerpt of their wider conversation.
Looking back at all you've gone through during education, all the hardships you put up with - was it worth it?
John Skelton: Most definitely. It shouldn't be an easy ride though - it should be a challenge and a preparatory stage before entering the world of work, which naturally presents more difficulties. You have to really engage with your work and experiment; having the opportunity and time to find your identity is the most precious aspect of a fashion education. Personally I would have liked to be pushed much more earlier on, as it wasn't until I did the MA that I really got that pressure. If you are fully committed and enthralled by the world you are working in, the hardships that come alongside are much more manageable because you know you are going through it for a reason.
Phoebe English: Yes - this is my life and that was part of it. You can't edit parts out; it is all part of the whole.
Alexandre Arsenault: Yeah, two years of "no consequences for your decisions". You realise how important that was once you graduate.
Firpal Jawanda: I don't think hardship (depression, anxiety) is ever worth it. It's that tortured artist cliché that I don't agree with. Although I'm better now and I've gone through it, or I cope with my mental health better, I can't bring myself to say it's worth it. Suffering isn't necessary to get through education. But it is so common that education puts that stress on our mental health, and it's not like a switch that was turned on once I started CSM will be switched off once I finish education.
How much are you willing to sacrifice to reach your goals in this industry?
Richard Malone: Nothing, I think you have to find a balance that's your own. I think that attitude about sacrificing your life for some clothes is quite stale. Also, a lot of us now aren't willing to sacrifice our lives for a company with no moral compass and outdated ideals, there are too many corporate fashion houses that are shite but can pay their way to excellent reviews and any magazine they want, and it's so fucked up. You should take everything with a pinch of salt.
Daniel Fletcher: Late nights, lost weekends and extended overdrafts are one thing, but I'm not about to start pushing people under busses or anything. At the end of my BA, I had to spend a week in hospital on a drip - I literally handed my collection in and then went to hospital and came out again the night before the show. I was so exhausted. I am trying to avoid that happening again.
Matilda Soderberg: If I'd manage to find a way to perform my practice in a way that corresponded with my ideas, the fulfilment I'd get out of my work would compensate for my sacrifices. The problem is that the fashion industry doesn't accommodate that many opportunities for designers to explore new ways of working with fashion - more as a creative medium rather than a commercial building brick - unless you're blessed with a wealthy sponsor. Since I'm using fashion as a way to conduct a kind of socio-visual science, I'm always very consumed by the research part of my projects, where I patch together homemade conspiracy theories that I try to apply to fashion design. Mostly drawing my work upon anti-capitalist ideas, I would also have a hard time envisioning how I could find myself fitting into a highly commercial and materialist world.
How do / did you find fulfilment in your design work despite the various pressures (all-nighters, peer tutor pressure, dealing with stress, anxiety, depression etc.) that fashion education puts on students?
Richard Malone: You have to be able to evaluate your own work, that's what any creative education is about. At the end of the day you're on your own once you leave, and you shouldn't be too reliant on someone telling you what to do.
Phoebe English: When I design it is part of me. I make my work so I can see it; it is an insuppressible desire that I feel very acutely and have to somehow get out of my body by making it in real life. There is nothing more self-indulgent than making your own work; it is the ultimate luxury, and I always try and remember this when I am feeling tired. I am very privileged to have been able to keep going this long and still be making collections, and each one is a part of my life, part of who I am, part of where I am, part of the people I know and love. There is nothing more fulfilling than the luxury of being able to express those things as work.
Nicholas Daley: I believed it was important that I was tested both mentally and physically, pushed, during my time at CSM. It helped in my preparation for the real world and to understand that not everything goes your way, and that you have to continue to work through the problems. I recently was in Japan for the first time, where I met many fans and followers of my work. This was one of the most fulfilling moments, as people thousands of miles away are understanding and appreciating the garments I am creating.
Richard Quinn: It shouldn't be easy, but you push yourself how far you want to. A tutor won't be holding your eyes open to stay awake: they will highlight you have a lot to prove in a short amount of time, and you either sink or swim. You can sleep when you're dead.
Firpal Jawanda: Dealing with anxiety and just turning up has been my main crux. In my first year, if I knew I was going to be 15 minutes late, I was so stricken with anxiety I wouldn't turn up at all. That could escalate into three or four consecutive days. And when things were bad it was hard to find fulfilment. It wasn't until I was better in myself that the work was rewarding, because I saw things clearer and the work became more real; I was better, and I didn't disassociate from it anymore.
What are the main reasons that you put up with this / go through it? What are the rewards for you? (Future prospects/personal development, etc.?)
John Skelton: First and foremost, because it is what I love to do, and in turn it gives me the highest sense of fulfilment. It's a medium in which I can have a voice and have the potential to incite change, which would be an incredible reward. The potential to have the ability to influence whilst having the freedom of full artistic expression is extremely rewarding. There are not specific rewards as such; they come in many different guises.
Richard Malone: No idea. I think the stress is magnified because if you're a pessimist, you can easily think the whole industry is pointless and redundant; none of it is 'necessary' to other people, but everyone creative has an urge to create. It's inexplicable and only at ease when you get up and work at it and apply yourself to it. I think there is a real problem with some art and fashion schools where people go outwardly looking for a star - it's too much, and after four years of education, that's ridiculous. You have to not get caught up in that shit.
Daniel Fletcher: My work has always been very political, and while I've always felt like people have a responsibility to speak up for their beliefs, after this year it seems even more important! To be able to share my views and my work and have people listen - that is definitely one of the reasons I keep doing this. But also I don't think my mind would let me stop designing! I am quite realistic in thinking I may not be able to keep my label going forever, but I am learning so much from doing it that even if I go back to working for another brand at some point, I will be able to take some amazing experiences from this.
Do you think there is something that could make your work processes mentally easier?
Phoebe English: No: it is both crushingly, excruciatingly devastating and intensely, illuminatingly elevating, never in equal measures.
Daniel Fletcher: I'm fairly sure anyone, student or designer, will say the same, but this would all be a lot easier with a load of money! Or by slowing the system down a bit: I think brands put too many unnecessary collections out there, and I'd prefer to show less frequently and have time to incubate my ideas. There are no plans for a pre-fall-cruise-couture-sport-resort collection any time soon.
Alexandre Arsenault: If factories would answer faster, and of course financial support.
Richard Malone: Not being connected to the internet.
Matthew Adams Dolan: Yes, a puppy!
Are you still having fun?
John Skelton: Of course, I wouldn't do it if I wasn't, although it's certainly questionable at times. In hindsight, I'm most content when I am very busy and deeply involved within my work; there's no time to think about anything else or worry, so you just get on with it.
Richard Malone: Absolutely. There would be no reason to do it if I didn't love it.
The full publication is available exclusively at Dover Street Market, in a limited edition of 100.
Text 1 Granary
Photography Chris Rhodes